Brian Jay Stanley Aphorisms and Paradoxes


Brian Jay Stanley is a student of humanity and the cosmos. His paradoxical aphorisms are both insightful and delightful, comparing favorably, in my opinion, to those of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Logan Pearsall Smith, Eric Hoffer, E. M. Cioran, or various poets featured on this blog. Brianʼs latest piece, On Being Nothing, was published in the New York Times and generated over 240 comments.

Why Youth Feels Immortal

We seldom catch the transition from sleeping to waking. Gently we dawn into consciousness, but because so gently, we do not notice the metamorphosis until itʼs complete, when we discover ourselves lying fully awake in our bed. It is like the change into life itself. Having clambered up the steps of infantile cognizance, one day in childhood it first occurs to us that we exist, already many years after the fact. Looking back for our beginning, the past is a fog, and we find we cannot remember a time when we did not exist. No wonder in youth we feel immortal. How could we die when it seems we have always lived?

Atheism and Computers

There is an eeriness in learning computer science, the eeriness of discovering the empty soul of a machine beneath the monitorʼs meaningful display. Behind the colorful banners, cartoonlike icons, and smart, responsive buttons on our screens are cryptic lines of codes and commands. Strange as they are, these hidden strings of characters are only the programmerʼs, not the computerʼs, language. The computerʼs only language is an endless run-on sentence of ones and zeroes. Its silicon cerebrum is a vast array of tiny electrical switches, each charged or chargeless. The changing order of charges translates, miraculously but mindlessly, into all the streaming wonders of words and colors we perceive.

So too is the atheistʼs universe. Pry behind the rich graphics flashing across the screen of being, and you arrive at the imbecilic machinery of it all, electrons flowing through the circuit boards of the stars, motors whirring on the hard drives of our bodies. Beneath the intelligible there is only the unintelligent, a blank stare behind beautiful eyes, muteness behind the music.

Theology of the Empty Universe

Theologically, outer space presents a riddle. Why did God leave creation so uncreated? The vast empty regions separating the faint stars suggests not so much creation from nothing, but creation of nothing—the calling into being of nonbeing. God is said to have made the world through his wordʼs omnipotence, but I have never heard explained why the great phrase of Genesis, “Let there be light!” should have come to so little fruition.

Many past philosophers taught that the cosmos is a thought in the mind of God. If so, how strangely blank is the all-encompassing brain! Is the divine mind still in infancy, formed but not yet filled? Conversely, has some tremendous disease eaten away the aging network of neurons until we alone are left, a last synapse firing off in the dying omniscience?

The Missionaryʼs God

If, as missionaries believe, people must hear the true religion or be damned, it is poorly planned that God sets tribes in the middle of jungles where they will certainly never hear it, and then, as if scrambling to correct this oversight, commissions the chosen to search through the vines and provide them the code to heaven God forgot to. Missionaries are like Godʼs software patch to fix a faulty program.

Modern Astronomy is Behind the Times

The light of stars must travel so far and takes so long to reach us that we see the cosmos not as it is, but as it was eons ago when the light now arriving first left its source. Thus, we have no idea what is happening out there right now. All astronomical discoveries are stale reportage. Stars die as scientists witness their birth. For all we know, doomsday has already come to the far side of space, and it will be ten billion years before news of it crosses the wires. We are like generals in old wars, who had to wait for updates to travel hundreds of miles by courier to army headquarters. Often, by the time the message came that the ranks were holding strong, luck had turned and the fort lay in enemy hands.

A Meaningful Career As a Professor of Meaninglessness

A paradox of philosophy is that, having originated as the pursuit of knowledge, it has mainly led to skepticism. Aristotle sought rational meaning in nature and humanity, but philosophers since him have steadily given up, culminating in the twentieth-century existentialists who deny the meaning of life, and deconstructionists who deny any meanings beyond the mere wizardry of words.

Yet what do philosophers accomplish by their denials of meaning? They gain for themselves professorship and authorship; they define an idea they can embrace and base their life upon.

Humans are so needful of meaning, we find it even through denying it.

The Cosmos of Thought

Stargazing is a boring hobby unless one supplements gazing with thinking. Visually, the night sky is among natureʼs plainest paintings—a black canvas speckled with dim white dots. Its most interesting dimension is its depth, a dimension wholly undetectable to mere sight. No wonder the ancients, having only eyes for instruments, conceived of a rotating dome embedded with fixed lights, a short distance above earth.

Only a mind to match the sky can make the stars worth looking at. If outer space inspires us, it is because we soar through the inner infinity of imagination.


Brian Jay Stanley is an essayist and software developer in Asheville, North Carolina. His personal philosophical essays have been published or are forthcoming in The Antioch Review, North American Review, The Hudson Review, The Sun, Pleiades, The Dalhousie Review, The Laurel Review, Connecticut Review, and other magazines. They were selected as notable essays in The Best American Essays in 2006, 2010, and 2011, and have been anthologized in America Now (9th ed.), from Bedford/St. Martinʼs Press. He received a masterʼs degree in library and information science from the University of Illinois and a masterʼs degree in theology from Duke University.

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